Over the years I have had the opportunity to work with many landowners that were devoted to having quail on their property. Questions about feeding quail seem to always arise at some point during my visit. For this reason I thought I would take a few minutes to share some thoughts with you on the subject and why for many of us, supplemental feeding is a necessity. Why do we even need to feed quail?As a youngster, my father and I hunted quail and never had to plant a food plot or put out any feed. The farms we hunted had residual crops scattered along the field edges and food never seemed to be factor. But I can also remember, during one of those hunts, when he took the time to show me the track of a game animal that was just starting to become re-established in the region it was a deer track.Today you could leave half the crop in the field and still have nothing left for quail because the deer would have eaten it all. Also, deer browse on many of the native seed producing plants. This activity further reduces the abundance of natural winter food sources that quail need. In a situation like this, supplemental feeding is critical to sustain a winter quail population.
Sod-forming grasses are another factor to consider. Years ago, as cattle became more common in the southeast, landowners tried to improve the grazing quality of their pastures by introducing sod-grasses such as Bermuda grass, Bahai grass, and Fescue. When these types of grasses take over a fallow weed field, all of the plant groups needed to provide quail with food and cover are eliminated. In this case, the only remaining quail food- producing habitat on the farm would be in hedge-rows or wood lots around the pastures. Most often this is not sufficient area to carry a quail population through the winter. This creates the need to supply extra feed.
Not only are large deer populations and the huge influx of sod grasses working against us, but also the size of the tracts we are managing. Today, many of us are trying to produce huntable populations of game birds on smaller pieces of land. In this case year-round supplemental feeding of quail is a must. This is really no different than fertilizing a three-acre fishing pond in order to produce and maintain five acres worth of fish. Since you can’t make the pond bigger, you manage it more intensely so it can produce more fish. Providing supplemental feed on your quail area can provide more quail.
How does feeding impact a quail population?The large southern quail plantations have been providing supplemental feed to their quail for decades. They felt this practice would allow them to carry a bigger population of birds throughout the winter.
Tall Timbers Research Station, and Auburn University’s, Albany Quail Project, have in recent years, conducted studies to examine the pros and cons of feeding quail. Their findings have shown that supplemental feeding can increase the quality and quantity of quail that survive the winter. This results in a higher and healthier breeding population during the summer season than would otherwise be expected.For instance, The Albany Quail Project conducted a study on a plantation that had been feeding their quail for several years. The landowner agreed to discontinue supplemental feeding on one portion of the plantation, so researchers could compare the results between a fed and non-fed area. After two years, the population on the non-fed area declined 60% at which point the landowner stopped the project and resumed feeding.
Researchers from Tall Timbers Research Station in Tallahassee, Florida also conducted a similar study. They found that feeding not only resulted in more birds making it into the breeding season but that the fed birds began nesting activity about one month ahead of the unfed population.
The researchers are quick to point out that the affects of feeding are more noticeable in drought years than they are during years that have adequate rainfall. Of course this is probably due to the effect that the amount of rainfall has on the overall availability of food.
Does feeding increase quail disease and predation ?Some people argued that feeding was a bad practice because it would lead to the spread of disease as well as increased quail predation. As far as disease is concerned, this is a no-brainer. As we already mentioned, the fed birds are in better physical condition than the unfed birds and a healthier bird is far less likely to contract an illness.
As far as predation, in many cases supplemental feeding can reduce it. One of the most interesting things to come out of recent research efforts is the effect that feeding has on the activity and home range of quail. The more abundant the food supply, the smaller the home range of the bird. The smaller the home range, the less the bird is exposed to predation. The lower the predation, the higher the overwinter survival rate.
In summary, we are trying to manage quail on smaller tracts in a fragmented landscape with a migratory Cooper’s hawk population that is unprecedented. A weak trapping market has allowed the four-legged predator population to sore. Trash dumpsters have become nurseries for an endless supply of feral cats and dogs that find their way to “quailville”. One would expect that anything we can do to help quail survive should be done. Supplemental feeding is one of those things.
I cannot think of any successful quail areas that I ever worked with in the past or that I am presently involved with now that do not have some sort of supplemental feeding program. It is vital to remember that providing feed for quail is only going to be meaningful when put in the context of good habitat management and in most cases, predator control. This is true for both wild bird management and successful pre-season release projects.Now that you understand why you may need to consider a feeding program, you may want to read next month’s column which will explain various methods of feeding.
In the days of my youth feeding quail was unheard of, but now it is as much apart of my management as control burning and fall disking.